Friday, February 12, 2010

Black Pop Culture History: The Jeffersons

When The Jeffersons hit the airwaves in 1975, I was a 6-year-old living in a white middle class neighborhood, attending a parochial school that had barely a handful of black students. The local country club where most of my friends spent their summers did not allow people of color. We belonged to the Jordan Y for that very reason. The most black kids I had been around was in a pee-wee football league at Riverside Park. To me, the Indianapolis park at 30th and Riverside Drive was “inner city.” Needless to say, I was pretty far removed from the African-American experience.

My parents didn’t let us watch All in the Family, so I doubt I saw the spin-off about an African-American couple “moving on up to the Eastside” when it first aired in '75. I do remember watching it a few years later, but didn’t think anything of its mostly black cast. By that time, other shows like Good Times and Sanford and Sons had also hit the airwaves, so I was reasonably accustomed to seeing “sitcoms of color,” shall we say. (Yeah, just try to get the Sanford and Sons theme music out of your head now, LOL!!!)

You may ask, “Why highlight a 70’s television series in honor of Black History Month?” Well, The Jeffersons is the longest-running series with a predominantly African-American cast in the history of American television. It received eight Golden Globe and eleven Emmy nominations, including six consecutive Lead Actress Emmy nominations (1979-1985) for Mrs. Jefferson actress Isabel Sanford. She won in 1981 and became only the second black female to do so. Gail Fisher was the first in 1970, winning an Emmy for her role on the hit series Mannix (annotated, Wikipedia).

By the the time Mrs. Jefferson won her Emmy Award, my family had moved to the Northeast side near Arlington High School. The popular CBS sitcom more closely reflected the neighbors I grew up amongst, including many middle to upper-middle class black families. Maybe that too lessened the shows impact on me as an adolescent. Still, you didn’t see many of those families represented on prime time television. And you certainly never saw mixed marriages. By the way, none of my neighbors had housekeepers, at least not to my knowledge, so maybe we were just a solid middle-class neighborhood. Either way, it was a much different neighborhood and more culturally diverse than Broad Ripple. My paper route took me close to the feared Jamestown Apartments at 46th and Arlington. I no longer attended parochial school, but a more integrated public school, IPS No. 106 (aka Robert Lee Frost School). In hindsight, I am glad my parents made that move when I was just nine years old.

The Jeffersons is significant not just for it’s record run on television, nor for it’s sizeable audience (finishing just behind Dallas and 60 Minutes in the Neilsen ratings for 1981-82 season), but for paving the way for other popular shows, like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It’s cultural impact did not go unnoticed by Bret Fetzer, who wrote on the Super 70’s website, “The black and white mix of the cast allowed for a sharply satirical take on race relations, which managed to have a genuine sense of hope while never glossing over the complexity of racial tension…” The show broke a number of television taboos, depicting an interracial marriage in the Jefferson’s neighbors, Tom and Helen Willis, and an African-American transgendered character, as the Racialicious blog points out. These were no small matters in the late 70’s. In fact, the former led to a research paper shared in 1976 at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Speech Communication Association in San Antonio, Texas.

Sure, the characters occassionally represented negative ethnic stereotypes, but they weren’t down-and-out, living on the lower East side. George Jefferson was a self-made man, whose dry cleaning business had flourished. These were not your typical urban themes of the other popular “sitcoms of color,” like those mentioned above. The Jeffersons had their own live-in maid, who provided much of the comedy, in my opinion. I used to love watching her disrespect her employer and put him in his place. The show is still as funny today as it was back then.

So hats off to Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, the cast and crew of The Jeffersons for making history and an indelible mark on the American television landscape!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Superbowl Hangover

Well, it’s not the sort of hangover I expected.

The Indianapolis Colts let go of the rope. They didn’t build on the two big playoff victories at home. They let a very winnable game slip away in the second half. And with the momentum swinging wildly in favor of the Saints, the team seemed to lose the will to win. Maybe that is unfair. I’ll bet Jeff Saturday would argue that point with me all day long, but on television it just seemed like the 2006 World Champions weren’t that interested in bringing home another ring and another championship banner to Indy.

That said, there were some bright spots in last night’s Superbowl XLIV. We’ll start with game balls to…

The O-line
Since I mentioned him by name already, let me tip my hat to Mr. Saturday and his beefy O-line colleagues! They played a whale of a game, opening gaping holes for the backs and protecting our prized possession. Even when the game was out of hand after the Saints forced their first turnover, the O-line did a good job in handling the blitzes and different defensive fronts. Good job O-line!

Joseph Addai
I thought Joe Addai and the running backs had a great night, giving us a much more balanced attack than I had expected. The backs combined for nearly 100 yards on a stingy Saints defense. Addai led them all with 77 of his own, thanks to the production and domination of the Colts O-line. He helped to keep the Saints defense honest. Otherwise, there may have been more than one “pick six.”

Dwight Freeney
To a guy who managed the white-hot media spotlight all week long, didn’t practice, and still “brought it!” I say KUDOS! Did you see how he manhandled the Saints lineman on his lone sack of Drew Brees? Almost lifted the guy off his feet and rocketed past him, slinging Brees to the turf. He must have been about 70% and still created havoc. He never ceases to amaze me!

Dallas Clark
SOLID! Seven receptions for 86 yards led all Colt receivers. Peyton’s go-to guy was as reliable as my father-in-law’s 300k mile Mazda pickup. His first catch of the game was picture-perfect, thanks to Peyton throwing a perfect dart against perfect coverage. Dallas created matchup issues for the Saints for the better part of the game…and the Saint linebackers are pretty good in coverage (i.e. see Vilma vs. Colley).

Game balls now virtually delivered, let me hit the weak spots on the team…

Matt Stover
We needed Mr. Money, Adam Vinateri last night, plain and simple. The oldest man to ever compete in the Superbowl showed the age of his legs on that 51-yard wide left attempt. Not that one kick would’ve won the game. By no means! But we could not afford to leave points on the field against the Saints, and 51 is not record length by any stretch of the imagination. DOH!

Peyton Manning
What were you doing in the second half last night? You started the game with a perfect pass. You managed the clock, the offense and the Saints D with ease until that 2-minute drive to end the half. Then you missed Reggie down the sideline by a mile. You threw an interception that cost you the game, granted it may have been as much an 80% Reggie Wayne problem as it was your poor read. Then, that near interception in the endzone? You didn’t even give Garcon a CHANCE to catch it! Had you just given up at that point? Did you have money on the Saints??? VERY un-MVP like of you, PM!

Maybe two weeks to prepare was TOO much. Maybe Peyton over-thought, over-analyzed and wore himself out mentally. I don’t know.

Clint Session
It’s hard to single one guy out on our bi-polar defense, but I was MOST disappointed with Clint. He’s our headhunter now that Sanders is out. He’s consistently brought it game in and game out…until the biggest game of his career. I’ll give him props for teaming up with tackle-leading Gary Brackett on the goal-line stance, but where was he the other 80+ plays? A real letdown from him, Robert Mathis and the Colts defense. I didn’t expect much from the banged up secondary, but there was little pressure from the front seven.

Okay, now I feel better.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Black Hoosier History: Lyles Station

Indiana’s attitude toward slavery wavered generally between acceptance and neutrality, but as a whole, it was never a “slave state.” In fact, several black communities thrived in the Hoosier State during 19th Century, one of which was located just a couple miles west of where I was born. See the partial map of Indiana, below, to locate the thriving black communities of the 19th Century.

Lyles Station is a historic gem in southwest Indiana and a growing tourist attraction in Gibson County. Founded by freed Tennessee slaves, the area once boasted a thriving agricultural community that supported a general store, grain elevator, post office, train depot and a church. The Lyles brothers settled in the rich, fertile soil of the Wabash and Patoka river bottoms, just west of Princeton.

The Lyles Station community boasted several notable residents, including the first African-American postmaster, and sent great men to serve in battle, in Indianapolis’ first black high school and in the White House. No small feat for a rural black community of about 50 families.

The story of this community and others like it is quite fascinating. They dotted the early Indiana forests. Wilma Gibbs of the Indiana Historical Society has done much work to document their existence and keep this important piece of Hoosier history alive.

I call attention to Lyles Station to commemorate and honor Black History Month, not because I want to seem politically correct and culturally sensitive, rather to show my great pride in the neighbors who co-existed peacefully and productively alongside my ancestors in Gibson County. I have no direct anecdotal evidence, but they must surely have interacted on some level.